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SUPREME COURT ABORTION CASES

What is Roe v Wade in law? What happened in 1973?

The landmark case has ensured abortion rights in the United States for nearly 50 years but a challenge from Mississippi could overturn the Supreme Court ruling.

Update:
The landmark case has ensured abortion rights in the United States for nearly 50 years but a challenge from Mississippi could overturn the Supreme Court ruling.
JONATHAN ERNSTREUTERS

Abortion rights in the United States have been assured for nearly half a century by a precedent-setting Supreme Court case from 1973 in which a Texas woman challenged the state’s right to outlaw abortion.

Previously states had largely been able to restrict and even remove abortion rights as they liked but the landmark case was the first real constitutional protection offered.

Almost fifty years later the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments from the state of Mississippi which is trying to overrule the decision from that case: Roe v Wade.

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Abortion rights before Roe v Wade

When the United States was founded abortion was legal before ‘quickening’, the point at which the pregnant person is able to feel the fetus move, which can be around four or five months into the pregnancy.

Abortion was primarily carried out using herbs with the assistance of midwives, and as such the earlier laws which restricted abortions were bans on the substances used in the procedures. By the end of the 19th century most states had introduced some kind of restrictions on abortions, expect when it was needed to save the pregnant woman’s life.

In the first half of the 20th century, anti-abortion groups grew in prominence and their rhetoric was pushed by some who wished to confine women in the traditional childbearing role. The restriction of abortion rights continued in some states until 1970 when Norma McCorvey, under the pseudonym Jane Roe, brought a case against district attorney Henry Wade of Dallas County, Texas,

In Texas the vast majority of abortions were outlawed, with the only exceptions offered in instances where it would save the mother’s life. Roe filed on behalf on her and others to challenge the laws and was joined in her effort by a Texan doctor who had previously been arrested for disobeying the abortion rules.

Roe v Wade became the landmark abortion case in the United States

The state of Texas maintained that it had the right to safeguard health, draw up medical standards and to protect prenatal life, which it argued was covered by the 14th Amendment. Texas considered a fetus as prenatal life from the point of conception and the notion of what constitutes a ‘person’ would become central to the Supreme Court ruling.

Roe on the other hand claimed her right to “liberty” under the 14th Amendment, and argued the Texas law unconstitutionally impinged on her marital, familial, and sexual privacy. At this stage, it was argued that abortion rights are absolute and that a pregnancy could be ended at any time and for any reason the woman chooses.

A key point of the Roe v Wade case was the wording of the Constitution, which says that the protections it affords cover those who are "born or naturalized" in the United States. The Supreme Court therefore decided that "the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense."

The court fell short of ruling that women have absolute abortion rights, as Roe had claimed, but dismissed Texas’ assertion that it may overrule the rights of the woman. A framework was drawn up to balance the state’s medical powers with women’s privacy rights, ensuring that a state cannot prohibit abortion within the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

Follow all the latest news on the Supreme Court abortion hearing and the future for Roe v Wade with our dedicated live feed: Supreme Court on Roe v Wade: live updates

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